Ontario marks whirlwind, 'lightning speed' year since Premier Doug Ford's election
Ford government balancing aggressive cuts, populist policies, says former staffer
Ontario has seen a whirlwind of a year since Doug Ford was swept to power, leaving in his wake a path of dismantled environmental and social programs, a bounty of beer and a swath of cuts.
Ford's June 7 victory ushered in a busy political year, with the new Progressive Conservative premier checking off a significant portion of his campaign promises, eager to put his stamp on the province. But it also prompted a spate of protests both outside and inside the legislature.
He has undone many of the Liberals' signature policies, including a cap-and-trade system to limit greenhouse gas emissions and various green programs that were funded by it, worker-friendly labour laws including a planned $15 minimum wage, free tuition and a basic income pilot project.
Ford axed the offices of the francophone and environmental commissioners and the child and youth advocate, weakened species-at-risk provisions, scaled back a planned increase to welfare and disability support and cut the size of Toronto city council — his former political home — roughly in half.
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His government has also announced a massive health-care overhaul, lifted or frozen various fees, eliminated regulations, introduced its own climate plan and spent a vast amount of time and political capital fighting the federal carbon tax.
"We're moving at lightning speed," Ford said recently.
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That aggressive agenda is part of the reason for some of his bumps in the road, said University of Ottawa political science professor Genevieve Tellier.
"(They are) eager to implement some policies a bit too fast," she said, referencing major reversals on an autism program and in-year cuts to municipal public health and child care funding.
"We have kind of a stop-and-go mode in a sense that, 'Yes we are presenting new initiatives — oh gosh, we forgot about that, let's backtrack a bit and consult."'
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Melissa Lantsman, who was Ford's war room director during the election, said it can be difficult to simultaneously eliminate the deficit and maintain the "for the people" mantra.
"If he's forced to choose between aggressive cuts and helping real people, it's not a hard choice for him," said Lantsman, now a vice-president of public affairs at Hill and Knowlton Strategies.
"I think we saw a push and pull between the ideological forces in this government versus somebody who, call it what you will, has more populist tendencies."
Ontario 'open for business'
Amid major pieces of legislation, the government has also favoured flashier measures such as "open for business" signs on the border, anti-carbon-tax stickers on gas pumps and an unending stream of alcohol policies.
Ford brought back "buck a beer" — though uptake is minimal — legalized tailgate events, extended drinking hours, changed happy hour advertising rules and went to war with The Beer Store in an attempt to put beer and wine in corner stores.
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The Progressive Conservative government's first budget presented a larger spending package than the Liberals', but constrained spending in many areas. The precise nature of the cuts, however, were not immediately clear, and have emerged in a near-daily stream in the days and weeks since.
Cuts to legal aid, stem cell research, a tree planting program, arts funding and more have all prompted new waves of outrage.
An unrelenting agenda early in a political term is a way to both show voters that a politician can keep their promises, and get unpopular moves out of the way at the furthest point from the next election, experts say.
"Politically, you need people to either see the upside over time or to, you hope, not remember the pain," said pollster David Coletto.
Ford dropping in polls
But that strategy may be giving some voters buyer's remorse. The Tories have been falling in the polls lately, and the CEO of Abacus Data said that about 15 per cent of those who voted Progressive Conservative last year now say they would vote for another party.
"If the context for a sizeable group of those voters was simply to change course in terms of who was in power, as opposed to necessarily a full-on reset of the policy direction of the province, then I think that explains why they've hit a bumpy road with the public," Coletto said.
Some of Ford's moves have also alienated his own caucus members. Amanda Simard quit over cuts to francophone services. Randy Hillier was kicked out for not being a "true member" of the team, and has since become a vocal critic of the government. Caucus also lost a third member, Jim Wilson, over a sexual misconduct allegation.
Ford's own ascent to the premier's office was preceded by sexual misconduct allegations against his predecessor, former PC leader Patrick Brown — he denied the allegations, but resigned, triggering a leadership race.
Thus began the current frenzied pace of Ontario politics, with a rare summer sitting of the legislature following the election, a midnight sitting, and a recall of the house over the holiday break.
Politics can be exhausting, and the next year may not be much different, said Lantsman.
"There are still many, many tough decisions to be made, but like any government that figures out its stride, I think every year is frankly better than the last until it's not," she said. "With this government you saw an aggressive agenda, a productive legislative agenda, and I don't see that changing."